tv Al Jazeera World News LINKTV February 26, 2013 7:00pm-7:30pm PST
you introduce the man and the woman. and then you complicate it for the next 60, 70 minutes. you know they're going to get together, but it's fun to watch how they keep missing. we all go through cycles of believing in love and not believing in love. but i think we want to believe in love. characte change, their attitudes change, their politics change but their heart stays the same. annenberg media ♪ and:
with additional nding from these foundations and individuals: and by: and the annual financial support of: hello, i'm john lithgow. welcome to "american cinema." american romantic comedies are bright, witty, silly -- and loaded. in 1934, the motion picture "it haened one night" broke hollywood records and won 5 academy awards.
its appeal was in its modern version of romance, which played with certain acts. that same year, the motion picture production code was instituted which explicitly prohibited certain acts, themes words and implicatio. the code didn't mean you couldn't have romance. it meant there were limits. writers enjoyed testing the limits, changing a battle of the sexes into a playful intrigue that turned on double meanings and double dealings, launching a dede of fast-talking romantic comedies known as "screwball." some of the most elegant actors and actresses in hollywood did their best work making wisecracks and taking pratfalls proving the battle of the sexes is best as a battle of equals. from the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s to their resurgence with contempary films like "when harry metally," we'll see there is a lot going on beneath thbreezy dialogue and ridiculous slapstick
of "romantic comedy." (music playing) ♪ why do fools ♪ fall in love? ♪ (narrator) boy meets girl... boy loses girl. love conquers all. it a timeless story. ♪ why does the rain ♪ fall from up above? ♪ why do fools ♪ fall in love? ♪ why do they ♪ fall in love? (narrator) from the screwballs of the 30's to the smash hits of tay what makes romantic comeds great is not their visual style or historic setting, but what they reveal about each era's battle of the sexes.
the myth of romantic comedy is you will find the one for you. out there is a person for you. everybody will find the person they fit with. i think that's why movies are made. to tell people, and give them hope. i don't believe that love goes on forever, that there's one person for anybody, i don't believe that weddings should end a woman's life, i don't even think bride gowns look that attractive. i don't believe any of that. i don't believe in marriage, i don't believe in eternal love i don't believe in any of the stuff that is probably the ending of all of my movies.
as the relationships between men and women have gotten more complicated, and in some ways more strained, we've become much more conservative, and i think we're longing for the romanticism of the 30's. (susan seidelman) things were a lot simpler. (robert zemeckis) when you're in a tough spot, the best thing to do is go back and see how the old masters handled that situation. what we tried to do when we were making a film was have the audience feel these two should get together they're attracted to each other they can complement each other. romantic ideas are laid into the film, so we want them to get together at the end. we want to see the story of our sexual desire enacted over and over and over, in all kinds of different ways; it does not go out of style.
yes? what is it? i'm sorry to bother you, but i forget the key, so i had to ring your bell. i feel so silly. it's perfectly all right. the basic romantic comedy is: two people of different sides of the tracks get together. so this is part of what you do all through the ages, cross-dresser who meets fashion designer. you can do anything. well, the basic storyline is two people finding each other. not good enough. what did you say? i said they're not good enough for him. every jane in the room is giving him a thermometer he fls they're a waste of time. (molly haskell) the whole idea is that yotalk or you sing or you do all of these things before you begin the romance. (woman) watch his head turn when that kid goes by. won't do you any good, dear. he's a bookworm, but swing him anyway.
oh, now how about this one? how'd you like that hanging? (molly haskell) it's a game. you play all sorts of games. (woman) what is your weakness, brother? holy smokes, a dropped kerchief! that hasn't been used since lily langsley. you'll have to pick it up yourself, madame. it's a shame that he'll never see it. oh, you don't like h either? well, what are you gonna do about it? oh, you just can't stand it anymore, you're leaving. these women don't give you a moment's peace, do they? go soak your head and see if i care! introduce the man and the woman in the beginning of the movie, and then you complicate it for the next 60, 70 minutes, and you know they're gonna get together at the end, but it's fun to watch how they keep missing each other. it's kind of a tough thing, because if you say, "here's a romantic comedy, and i'm trying to keep the tension alive," except the audience comes in, they know who's in it, so they know they're gonna get together.
so you always throw in obstacles to keep people apart. (robert zemeckis) the stakes in the story kept getting higher, the reaction the audience has watching these films is "my god, how are they ever gonna get together?" (amy heckerling) you're walking a fine line between having the reason, and with real obstacles so although that reason exists and they love each other, that they'll stay apart until some thing is resolved that's bigger than they are. yes. it's emotionally satisfying to get that cathartic moment at the end when they do come together; it's intellectually satisfying because the plot is always twisting in on itself. it's all this grand mystery, it always has been. and i think that's why it works so well in a film.
i just think characters change, their attitudes change, their politics change, their intellect changes. but, not to sound too romantic, but their heart stays the same. (narrator) the goldenge of romantic comedy was the screwball era, made between 1934 and 1944. it presented characters with wit, sophistication, elegance. their irreverent behavior offered an unsentimental vision that was powerfully romantic and distinctly modern.
(screeching tires) in baseball, a screwball pitch goes in the opposite direction to the one that the batter expects. the same thing happens in screwball comedies. they're comedies of inrsion; the world's turned upside down. rich people get to act like children; men, often seen in hollywood as being very strong, come out as very weak; and conversely, women, often very weak in films come out as very strong. for the most part, the woman was upper-class, and the man was not lower-class, but not to the manor born. and that was the difference between them, that was the false impediment to their love taking place. of course, this was during the depression, '34 was the depths of the depression. (molly haskell) but these films ran counter to it in every way, these were about men and women who weren't in trouble
economically, that were magically free. they were about this world that was rarified, that was the champagne and caviar world. (narrator) it was america in the early 1930's, and though stocks were down, unemployment was up, and there was nothing much to laugh about, (narrator) new york, our culture capital, was thriving. (horn playing) broadway was booming. the hoity-toities and the swells partied hearty. until one day, a telegram from a hollywood agent arrived at the home of a new york writer. (typing sound) (narrator) hollywood needed writers, 'cause talkies needed dialogue.
so new york writers raced west, with sophisticated lifestyles. (narrator) where they found hollywood in its natural habitat: by the pool. while new york writers delivered the witty repartee, the hollywood directors supplied the pratfalls. frank capra, gregory le cava, leo mccary, and george stevens. all got their training in the slapstick of the 1920's. and it was this new form combining high and low comedy, classy chatter and physical highjinks, that bore america's sweetheart: the screwball. and in 1934, "it happened one night," the first screwball comedy, ran away with 5 academy awards.
aren't you going tgive me a little credit? what for? i've proved once and for all that theimb is mightier than the thumb. why didn't you take of l your clothes? you could have stopped forty cars. oh... i'll remember that when we need forty cars! screwball comedi, i think, have lasted so well because they're sophisticated; they're very unsentimental; of all the genres produced in the 30's and 40's, they're the most modern cause they center on the idea of equality of the sexes. and how many drinks have you had? this will make six martin. all right... will you bring me five more martinis? leo, line them right up here. what was interesting about 30's screwball romantic comedy was that it was the second full decade where women had the vote, where women were emancipated.
(peter bogdonavich) the women, by and large, were the brighter of the two. i think it's significant that the women in the 30's had the top billing. (molly haskell) the women give as good as they get in these. they're active, and they're authoritative, or they're wild, or they're uninhibited. (whistling) don't you shush me! you've been shushing me for twenty-two months now. you've shushed your last shush! the women in these films are very strong, and they have a way of taking control of the situaon, using men for their n uses,for . (ed sikov) barbara stanwyck, in "thlady eve," takes henry fonda for a ride. somebody breathing heavily and then ... (ed sikov) she enjoys watching m suffer at her hands. ohh... ohhhh... you better go to bed, hopsy. i can sleep peacefully now.
i wish i could say the same. why, hopsy! (narrator) ironically, it may have been the industry's censorship code that was at the heart of what made screwball comedies so clever, subtle, and even sexy. (announcer) hays enforcement officer, joel breem has done the difficult job of making sure no picture offensive to any race, class or creed will reach the screen. (molly haskell) the movies' censorship body came in, in 1934, which was the time when screwball comedy came to be. the hays office had a whole set of codes against showing anything sexual or physical so it gave rise to this very imaginative and indirect kind of romance. oh, pardon me, mrs. wally, you misunderstand. i am a voice teach, am i not? for one year she has been my pupil.
and from time to time i pat her on the back. oh, that's nice. i mean i, i congratulate her, on her -- development. is that so? do i express myself? oh, you've been doing all right. but now my position must be considered. i have never yet been in a scandal. never been caught, huh? no. i am a great teacher, not a great lover. that's right, armand. no one could ever accuse you of being a gat lover. that is, i mean to say, well... well, who's to say whether you are or not? it's all so silly! but maybe i had better go. there's something delicious about not quite seeing sex in a movie; that all people do is kiss, there's something fantastically romantic about that. that's what makes a screwball comedy american, because there is something puritanical in our society, and we are more comfortable with squabbling and fighting and verbal sparring than we are as we've seen --
the films that are done now that have outright sex are very rarely very sexy, are not erotic, these films in their own way are more erotic, more charged than films that have all-out nudity or sexuality. oh... um... would you mindmind if i asked your professional opinion about something? not at all. well, now... what would you say about a man who follows a girl around -- follows her around? and when she talks to him, he fights her. is the young man your fiance? oh, no, i don't know him, i never even saw him before today. oh, no, he just follows me around and fights with me. well, the love impulse in men very frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict. the love impulse. without my knowing anything about it, my rough guess would be that he has a fixation on you, no, no, no, wait a minute, a fixation? the love impulse in man frequently reveals itself in terms of... conflict. conflict. i'm eternally grateful to you. you're absolutely wonderful.
something about those mid-30's comedies. (tom schatz) the romance is based in a very lively antagonism that's a function of class. that's a function of a rural-urban split. so it's about the differences between the genders. no. yes. no. yes. why do we keep coming back to the same kind of movies except to see those conflicts worked out in different ways? we wcharacters, story,imated in cand we want to see -- at least we want to see differt types of resolutions. (tom schatz) what makes a genre a genre is that it quite literally works on cultural contradiction that simply can't be resolved. (susan seidelman) the characters are such good matches for each other, and the writing so intelligent, and characters so articulate
that it's fun to watch them go at each other. been in hollywood long? long enough. trying to crash the movies? something like that. pretty hard to do, huh? i never got close enough to find out. sorry. who's being sorry? am i buying you the eggs, or are you buying me the eggs? just like to repay you. all right, introduce me to lubich. i might. who's lubich? drink your coffee. it is very much a star-driven genre. (tom schatz) there were a number of actors who were absolutely crucial to the development of this genre. jimmy stewart, spencer tracy, early cooper. even though the men were always a little bit, played a little bit as, as fools. they were intelligent men, and they were still certainly very appealing and sexy. i think cary grant was the quintessential romantic-comedy star, for a number of reasons.
(peter bogdonavich) he was terribly good-looking; plus this facility with comedy. physical comedy; he'd been a stilt-walker, he did pratfalls and he could do somersaults. he was athletic and acrobatic. the movie that made him a star was mccary's "the awful truth," cary grant resisted the role, resisted playing it. he was so worried about it, he went to the studio head and asked to take over the other part; he wanted to play the ralph bellamy part. harry cohen threw him out of the office. after that, everybody else was a "poor man's cary grant." (tom schatz) there were stars like jean arthur, barbara stanwyck, and even hepburn, who saw the genre as a place where they could loosen up, where they could bring from within themselves a kind of energy that they couldn't bring to other roles. there were stars like lombard who built their star persona in the genre.
lombard was pretty raunchy and profane, but we endured it, because she did it with a disarming free spirit. (e.e. bernds) she had a magnificent figure, and on the set of 20th century she wore a white outfit that fitted her perfectly. we had an assistant director who thought he'd embarrass her. he came to her and said, "the pubic hair makes a bump, and you'll have to shave it off." she shrieked with laughter, ran into her dressing room, got a razor, and told buddy: "it's your idea, you shave it off." and believe it or not, buddy ran. he didn't come back the rest of that afternoon. good morning. i brought you breakfast. are you the new butler? don't you remember last night? well, well ... what happened to godfrey?
i'm godfrey. oh, you look so different. what happened to those nice whiskers? tu around, let me look at you. you're the cutest thing i've ever seen. thank you. one of the reasons that they do last, and aren't outdated is they don't come out and say, "this is what we're about, we're about where women are now, in society, or where..." they don't address sex head-on, or gender issues as we might say today, but they're all about them; it's all there. in the case of "his girl friday," it was a career woman, and that was exotic, it was an exotic creature then, is a general malaise now. (molly haskell) "his girl friday" was originally the play "the front page" by ben hecht and charles macarthur with a male newspaper editor and his male star reporter. i've got some news for you. yes, yes, i got the interview all right, but i've got some more important news. now listen, you crazy baboon, get a pencil and paper
and take this down and get it straight! if i ever lays on you -- -- no matter where i am -- -- i'm gonna hammer -- -- that monkey's skull -- (both) so it rings like a chinese gong! the story is howard hawks was reading it, and had his female secretary read hildy's part and said, "wow, this is a love story." and of course, it is a love story. you have the scene of her departure from her fiance, poor ralph bellamy... what did you say? huh? go on. oh, i just said, "even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you." (molly haskell) her outfit is based on adele rogers st. jones, who was a newspaperwoman who dressed in a mannish style. hi, hildy, welcome back. (molly haskell) and she comes in with such authority, breezes into the newsroom, says hello to everybody. she goes into grant's office, and immediately, it's like a boxing match, like a love match and a boxing match. now listen, walter. you are no longer my husband, and no longer my boss, and you're not going to be my boss. what's that supposed to mean?
just what i say. you're not coming back to work on the paper? you are right, mr. burns, for the first time today. ahhh... got a better offer, huh? you bet. all right, go on, take it, that's the gratitude i get! what were you when you got here five years ago? a doll-faced hick! well, you wouldn't take me if i hadn't been doll-faced. well, why should i? i'd be shuddering -- listen, walter. listen, i made a great reporter of you, but you won't be half as good on any other paper and you know it! we're a team -- (yelling simultaneously) sold to the american! the rhythm of their speech showed two people who were able to inhabit a world together that nobody else could take part in. so it's really romantic. they spoke the same language, but nobody else quite spoke it. they had to end up together. the paper's going to have to get along without me. so are you. just didn't work out. it would have worked out, if you'd been satisfied with just being editor and reporter. but not you... you had to marry me, spoil everything! i wasn't -- i suppose i proposed to you!
well, you practically did, making goo-goo eyes at me until i broke down... "oh, walter!" if you'd have been a gentleman, you'd have forgotten -- why, you! what rosalind russell is, is looking for here, what she's torn between is not just two men, but two versions of herself, two versions of womanhood, which are seen as in conflict, and still are. we have on the one hand the myth you can have it all; on the other we do feel still, this tension between devotion to career, which is still seen as somehow selfish for women. to be obsessed with work. i mean about three years ago, "his girl friday," if the script had come in, would have been cutting-edge. and that, my friends, is my farewell to the paper. i'm gonna be a woman, not a news-getting machine. i'm gonna have babies and take care of them and give them time to grow, watch their teeth grow, oh dear, if i see one of them look at a newspaper again, i'm gonna brain 'em. where's my hat? hello? hello? oh, mr. burns? yes, she's still here. (molly haskell) she thinks she wants to move to suburbia and join the garden club and do those womanly things.
where is my... oh, there it is. and cary grant is out to, to show her that she, that's not what she wants, she wants to be a newspaperman. walter? hildy. he's just escaped -- yeah? (molly haskell) by the end, she's realized through covering this story, through getting involved in it, that this is where she belongs. she needs that adrenaline, that excitement, that this is her passion, that this is what turns her on. this is sex for her. one question... you don't want to come with me? i need that. you don't, do you? (molly haskell) there was always this fear that women would get a taste of freedom and never come back. and you sense that, i think. that's one of the core themes in screwball comedy. this starts to sound like it's a political thing, and i don't think it is; i think it's a dramatic thing, it's a character that goes from point a to point b. and i think it reflects, that character arc, reflects the climate of the time.
don't worry about the story, hildy's gonna write it. no, she's not quitting, she never intended to. we're gonna get married! honeymoon? suuure. hey, duffy. you'll be managing editor. no, no, not permanently, just for the few weeks we're away on the honeymoon. i don't know. where are we going? niagara falls. niagara falls, duffy. two whole weeks? sure, you've earned it. what? what? strike? what strike? where? albany? i know it's on the way -- all right, albany. okay, duffy. well, isn't that a coincidence. we're going to albany. (molly haskell) the screwball comedies are conservative; they end in marriage generally, or capitulation to marriage; but then, so do movies generally. audiences are conservative, and this is what they want. but you don't imagine that suddenly these women are going to fall into submissive roles.
it's just not gonna happen. (glass shattering) these are the little things that keep our ship afloat. oh! for example, what does amortization of mortgage mean? i don't care. (narrator) the next great era of romantic comedy was the 50's when the genre went in 2 very different directions. will you let me get dinner, george? that's exactly what i wanted to talk to you about. this ham, for example. how much is a pound of virginia ham these days? i don't know, i didn't buy a pound. (narrator) doris day and rock hudson emerged as top box-office draws i certainly don't know what half a pound costs. (narrator) and they reflected an era's concern with marriage. please tell my why you're so worked up over a ham? it's not just virginia ham. (narrator) truer to the critical tradition of romantic comedy were the films of billy wilder and frank tashlin
which sought to reveal what doris and rock concealed. you didn't lose your job? ohhh, no, i didn't lose my job! i'll have that job the rest of my life. well, then, what are you worried about? 50's, everybody said, "you know what love is? love is getting married, having a nice family, sitting around at home and playing cards and eating and having a meal together, that's love." everybody said, "fine." (peter bogdonavich) you had in america in the 50's a pretty grotesque chasm between the sudden discovery of overt sexuality, together with the ingrained puritanism of the country. (music playing) ♪ she gotta lotta ♪ what they call ♪ "the most" ♪ can't help it ♪ girl can't help it ♪ she was born ♪ to please ♪ can't help it ♪ girl can't help it